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Universal Studios Florida – San Francisco/Amity: Disaster!

Rating: * * * +
Type: Show and ride
Time: 25 minutes, ride portion is 3 minutes
Our Take: Best for the ride

Disaster! takes the "Ride the Movies" slogan to its logical extreme. Here, the ride is the movie and everyone who rides it is a star. Well, okay, everyone who rides it is an extra. There are chills and thrills in store, but first you have to go through some mildly amusing silliness to put you in the mood.

The experience begins with a visit to Disaster Studios, an "independent, boutique" studio, the creation of disaster flick genius, Frank Kincaid. Kincaid is quite the Renaissance man, writing, directing, and producing shoestring-budget disaster epics like Baboom, Fungus, and 300 Knots Landing, which is about a plane crash apparently..

Once inside, you discover you have stumbled into a casting call. One of Mr. Kincaid’s lackeys is looking for a few willing victims... er, volunteers to serve as actors and stunt people for Kincaid’s next blockbuster. There are parts for a young child, 10 to 12, a “gardening grandma,” a “hunky” guy (who usually winds up being anything but), and assorted other types, so if you’re interested in being part of the action, you probably have as much of a chance of being selected as the next guy.

Then it’s on to the next room, for the best part of the pre-ride show. Here we meet Mr. Kincaid himself, played by a subdued, but still bizarro, Christopher Walken. Through a bit of technological magic called “Musion” that will have you scratching your head and asking, “How’d they do that?” Kincaid (or at least a holographic simulation of him) strides on stage and interacts with his assistant.

Kincaid treats us to a brief lecture on his “secret” rules of disaster films (“The annoying guy always dies”) and announces his next magnum opus, Mutha Nature, a global warming eco-disaster flick starring Duane “The Rock” Johnson as a heroic park ranger battling evil corporate villains.

In the third room, the volunteers picked earlier are put to work filming bits and pieces that will later be edited into the final film. “Time is money,” Mr. Kincaid points out, so these bits are shot in an ultra-fast-paced illustration of “green screen” techniques, but minus any explanation of the what and why, it may seem a bit confusing. Perhaps in the age of DVD special features, it’s assumed there’s no mystery left to movie-making. The big news, however, is that Mr. Kincaid has decided to cast all of us in the grand finale to his film. With that, the audience is ushered in to the final phase of the Disaster! experience.

This is the part most people come for, a simulated earthquake aboard San Francisco’s BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). The train (with open sides and clear plastic roof) pulls out of the Oakland station, enters the tunnel under the Bay, and soon emerges in the Embarcadero station. A voice over the train’s P.A. system instructs you to scream for the camera as the earthquake reaches eight on the Richter scale and the Embarcadero station begins to artfully fall apart. Floors buckle and ceilings shatter. The car you’re in jerks upward, while the car in front of you drops and tilts perilously. Then the entire roof caves in on one side, exposing the street above. A propane tanker truck, caught in the quake, slides into the hole directly toward us. The only thing that prevents it from slamming into the train is a steel beam, which impales the truck and causes it to burst into flames. Next, an oncoming train barrels into the station directly at us, but the buckled track sets it on a trajectory that narrowly misses us. And it’s still not over. What looks like the entire contents of San Francisco Bay comes pouring down the stairs on the other side.

All too soon, the terror is over and the train backs out of the station, returning us to “Oakland.” As it backs out, we are treated to a trailer for Mutha Nature, into which have been inserted the scenes shot earlier, to humorous effect. Disaster! has retained the most exciting elements of the former Earthquake attraction and refreshed the tired preshow portions with fun, if somewhat frantic, results.

Tip: The exuberant performance of the sign-language interpreter, presented at selected shows, is a treat whether or not you are hearing-impaired.

The best seats in the house. The train holds about 200 people and is divided into three sections. The first section (that is, the car to the far left as you enter the BART station), has its seats facing backwards. The other two sections have seats facing forward. This arrangement assures that people in the first section won’t have to turn around to see most of the special effects the ride holds in store. The front of each section has a clear plastic panel but the view is somewhat obstructed. Avoid the first two rows of a section, if possible. Probably the best view is to be had in the middle of the second car. The major attraction for those sitting on the right (as the train enters the tunnel) is the flood, which can get a few people wet. The more spectacular explosion of the propane tanker and the wreck of the oncoming train are best viewed from the left. As always, the outside seats are the primo location.

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Universal Orlando 2011


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